CM Punk is a singular, remarkable figure in wrestling and one of the most important people in the business during the 21st century. Punk’s words matter, and his discussion of his career and his perspective highlighted the annual Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas, where, after an introduction by Ace Steel (Chris Guy), he accepted the Iron Mike Mazurki Award on Aug. 30 to multiple standing ovations. A transcript, lightly edited for clarity, follows. (Of note, as news broke on September 2 of Punk’s firing from AEW, Punk made zero mention of AEW or Tony Khan in his speech.)
It takes a village
I don’t know where to begin, JBL, where should I start? [From the audience, “Back in my day …”] Congratulations to all the other inductees and presenters. We’ve seen some very talented individuals here. There are individuals in these seats that are heroes of mine. There are people that I look up to. There are people that I have worked with and I am proud to be here tonight, proud to have shared wrestling rings and road and cars with a lot of you that are here today. I’ve been a lot of things in my life. First and foremost, and currently, and probably the thing I am most proud of, is I am April’s husband (A.J. Mendez).
None of this is about me. This is all going to be about the people that got me here to this moment. Professional wrestling is so interesting. I think a lot of us have quirks, and we’re so ego-driven. You’ve got to believe in yourself so much to make it — you have to sacrifice, you have to survive. But the truth is none of us really get to where we’re going without a village. My wife has helped me tremendously and she currently inspires me to be a better person, to try to understand myself and other things better and I love her to death. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.
Cut your hair!
This business was a lot different when I got in. But the basics and the fundamentals of professional wrestling are the same as they ever were. If it worked in the 1940s, it can work today. You just have to know how to apply it. And the basics of professional wrestling were taught to me by Ace Steel. I started goofing off in a backyard with my friends in 1993. It was just something to do. I liked comic books and I liked stuff that got me beaten up at school. I didn’t fit in anywhere, and, in fact, show of hands. How many here are wrestlers? How many here have taken a bump before? Do you remember why you got into the business in the first place? Because you loved it. You had to love it. I got into this business because I loved it but I also didn’t fit in anywhere.
I tried out for the football team my freshman year of high school. They told me I had to cut my hair. I said, “Nah, that’s not for me.” I was a punk rock kid with a six-inch spiked Mohawk at the time. I tried out for the wrestling team. They said, “Congratulations, you made it. Man, you’ve got to cut that fucking hair.” Now I walk around and all the NFL players have got Mohawks. I feel like I might have missed the boat, but I’m glad I did because I had to outsource and I found wrestling. Goofing off in the backyard with my friends. I was the ambitious one. I “borrowed” some lumber from some local businesses, let’s just say, and I built myself a wrestling ring that my friends would goof off in.
That turned into saving money to buy a ring from somebody in Texas. I think it was a UWF ring. We ran out first show in 1997. I remember watching the VHS tape that night and thinking, “Holy shit, we suck.” But I went out and got a promoter’s license because the only thing I knew was punk rock. I knew do it yourself. I knew if you wanted to do something, if I wanted to be in the band, go to the pawn shop, maybe borrow an instrument. I didn’t know there was wrestling schools. The internet wasn’t really a huge thing yet. I met Ace Steel and a guy named Danny Dominion in the bathroom of the Rosemont Horizon at a WWF house show. They gave me a business card and I went, “What is this? A wrestling school? Huh. I didn’t know you had to go to school.”
I had heat on me because I was a backyard wrestler. I showed up and they beat the crap out of me and it’s been a love affair ever since. From there, I wrestled every weekend I possibly could. Nothing mattered — girlfriends, jobs, responsibilities. The only thing that I cared about was getting in a car with whoever I could and driving anywhere. We were lucky because we were in Chicago and we were very central. I could drive to Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. I could crossover into Canada until I got thrown out the first time. We’d go to Minnesota, you could drive down to Kentucky, Indiana, 13-, 14-, 15-hour drives to Philadelphia. We went everywhere.
This is back in a time when you had to write down a resume, put a couple promos and matches on a VHS tape, and send them out. Promoters would call you — Mickie (James) knows —and you would get booked. I think the first match that I would say kind of put me on the map was when I got to wrestle two guys — Rey Mysterio Jr. and a man by the name of Eddie Guerrero. I wish that he was here. I wish Rey was here but he appears to have left but that’s fine. That’s quite all right [laughter]. There are a lot of people I wish were here. I wish Steve Keirn were here. He’s not dead; he’s just in Florida and that might be worse. Sorry, but 90 percent of the wrestlers in the world live and are from Florida.
I was fortunate enough to meet Eddie Guerrero; I think it was maybe 2001 and man, this guy changed my life. He was so kind and he was sweet and he’d just been going through it. He’d just been fired and was going through a divorce. He was worried about seeing his kids. But all he knew was wrestling, so he was on the road. He was working independent shots; he was getting booked in New Japan and I remember meeting him for the first time and him looking at me and saying, “I don’t like three-ways; they don’t make any sense to me. If it’s OK with you, you and Rey put it together and just call it to me.” I had very limited experience with going out and just kind of winging it. I’m an indie kid. We would sit down and map everything out from A to B. And man, if you got concussed or the ring broke or a riot broke out, or something happened, you didn’t know how to zig or how to zag. You learned on the fly. But Eddie that night made me realize how garbage I actually was. He made me feel, man there’s so much room for improvement. If this guy is willing to step in the ring with me wearing basketball shorts and Doc Martens, I need to up my game to show him respect.
None of this is about me. I stand on the shoulders of giants, literally. I would not be able to do any of this if it wasn’t for people like Eddie Guerrero, for people like Tracy Smothers. I wish Chris Candido was here. I am now of the age where unfortunately my contemporaries are passing away. Jay Briscoe, Bray Wyatt. Two people who should still be with us. Two people who I consider to be young, still.
Terry Funk just recently passed away. I was fortunate to know Terry Funk. Terry Funk lived a life. I think if you asked Terry right before he went, “Are you ready to go?” he would have told you he was ready to go ten years ago. But Bray, Jay Briscoe; I don’t think they were ready and so I think it’s important to remember them.
The first name I ever worked in the wrestling business was Tracy Smothers and I was scared to death because he came up to me in the locker room and said, “Oh man, you look good. You swimming? You eat cans of tuna? Aww man, listen, listen, man. I see these matches you have with Ace and with Chris Hero and all that stuff you do. Aww God, I can’t do any of that. I can’t remember any of that either. So we’ll just call it out there.” And I acted cool and said, “Sure. We’ll just walk and talk baby.” I was terrified and when I saw him in the ring, he ran outside and he grabbed a fan’s nachos and their cheese, and I knew I was wrestling in a barn in southern Indiana with a five-and-a-half drive ahead of me, no shower, and that son a bitch is going to cover me in nacho cheese. We didn’t talk about this in the back. This wasn’t planned. And he grabbed me and he grabbed that nacho cheese and he said, “Block the cheese, brother.” A lightbulb went off in my head and I said, “This guy’s just talking to me. This is amazing. You mean, I don’t have to talk to people before the show? This solves so many of my problems.”
Raven’s colorful business
That began a part of my career where I would actively hide from my opponents. All of that independent wrestling and traversing the United States and going into Japan, going to Puerto Rico, going to Europe, back when you had to smuggle merch into Europe. You were terrified because you were just a 19-, 20-year-old kid and you’re reading the declaration thing if you have more than $10,000 and you’re like, “Oh shit, did I sell too many T-shirts? They’re going to get me on the way back. Nobody’s ever taught me about any of this stuff.”
I landed a spot in Ring of Honor and it was the first time I ever met Mickie James, who’s the reincarnation of the rabbit’s foot, not a bad penny, but a good penny. She keeps coming back. I met Mickie James for the first time. Eddie Guerrero was still wrestling there. I learned from a guy named Raven. I know a lot of people might not like Raven. But here’s a little secret, too — a lot of people might not like me.
Raven, coupled with the things that Eddie had taught me and Tracy had taught me and Ace taught me and you mix that up with what Raven taught me — it’s not about the moves. The first time I ever wrestled Raven, if I may afford some time to this ridiculous story, he got a ridiculous amount of color on one of those Wednesday night TNA pay-per-views. I was wrestling him for Norm Connors’ IWC. He’s got the Crockett-era, Ric Flair athletic tape on his head and he’s sitting there and I’ve never met him before. I walk up to him and, “Hello, sir, my name’s Punk. Whatever you want to do.” “Ah, just tell me a couple things to do, kid.” As I’m talking to him, he just starts bleeding. He hasn’t done anything but he got such great color Wednesday night at the Nashville Fairgrounds that he’s leaking. I’m looking at him and I go, “You’re bleeding.” He goes, “Ah, shit.” There’s a match about to go out. Some kid is about to debut. Raven grabs him and he goes, “Ah, sorry, kid, we gotta go.” And he’s just like, “Start fighting!”
We start brawling and we go through the curtain. He’s already bleeding and he’s like we’ve got to go. Once again, thank you, Tracy Smothers, thank you, Eddie Guerrero, thank you, Ace Steel. You have given me the knowledge to not be afraid to go out and do something on the fly with a man that I just met and never wrestled before. He’s bleeding. I start chopping the shit out of him and he’s going, “Ehh! Ehh!” He starts giving me his shoulder and I’m like stop giving me your shoulder. I’m waffling the shit out of him. A little lesson learned. We get in the back and he goes, “Ah, kid, c’mere. Listen, chops are stupid. They hurt and they suck and don’t ever chop me again.” Duly noted.
WWE comes calling
Armed with the new knowledge I got from Raven and so many others, I continued to wrestle. Tommy Dreamer calls me one day and says, “The WWE wants to take a look at you,” and I said, “Shut up, fuck off; no way.” This is 2004. “No,” he says, “they really, really do.” I was doing dark matches, Tom Prichard was booking extra talent, and he said they legitimately wanted to take a look at me. I thought, well, this is the chance. WWF to me was never the goal. I looked up to people who went to Japan to wrestle. I thought the idea of going to Japan and being a superstar like a Bruiser Brody or a Stan Hansen or an Eddie Guerrero, and then coming home and nobody knowing who you are — I thought that was the coolest idea in the world. When I wrestled in Japan, Hashimoto told me, “Baby, too big cruiserweight, too small heavyweight.” My dreams dashed against the rocks!
Tommy called, and I said if they legitimately want to look at me, I’m not a WWE guy. I’m skinny fat — Hunter famously called me that. He wasn’t wrong, I wore basketball shorts. I told Tommy, “Give me six to eight months. I’m going to bust my ass and I’m going to get into shape and I’m going to do everything I can to when they legitimately take a look at me, they will not be able to say no.”
In the line of none of this being about me, I want to thank Val Venis. I had a match with him on Sunday Night Heat that got me my job and I knew it got me my job. People will tell me that I’m cocky and I know, but I knew leaving that ring — I almost had abs, believe it or not. So I’m offered a job and I’m on my way. I packed up everything at home in my 2001 Monte Carlo, which is the first thing I ever bought with my own money.
The first time I ever met Harley Race, he was a special guest referee for a match I had in Wisconsin. Harley comes up to me before the match and he goes, “Hey kid, don’t do any of that one-two, one-two, one-two bullshit. I don’t get up and down as fast as I used to.” I don’t think Harley wanted to count like Bronko Lubich quite yet. I think he had too much pride. I was terrified of Harley Race. This is the toughest man professional wrestling has ever seen — sorry, Haku [in audience]. Every time I would get taken over or have my takeover, Harley would come over and he would go, “Whaddya say?” He would stick his index and his middle finger both straight up my nostrils and I was just a young, 20-something punk kid, looking at the lights, going, “Why is Harley Race doing this to me?” If you ever met him, Harley had legit hands of steel and his fingers were like sausages. So to actually jam his fingers into my nose, it hurt quite a lot. I’m not as tough as Harley Race. Harley Race liked me for some reason and I didn’t get it. Tracy Smothers liked me for some reason and I didn’t know why. I never fit in anywhere before. Eddie Guerrero loved me and I never knew why.
Later that night in the bar, Harley Race is accepting shots from every single fan. He’s getting loaded but if you know anything about Harley Race, you know his loaded is a different planet than anybody else’s loaded. But Harley was a little bit older. He wasn’t the legendary Harley of the ’70s. Sure, he could drink hard but I think it might have gotten to him a little bit. Ace comes up to me and he goes, “Hey, can you stick around and we’ll just take Harley back to the hotel later?” “Yeah, sure, no problem.”
So it’s later that night. Harley comes out of the bar, we’re walking to the car. Harley walks out of the bar and he stops and gives me one of these (belches loudly). This is my brand new 2001 Monte Carlo; it’s the first thing I ever bought with my own money. He sits shotgun, Ace sits in the back seat. We’re driving to the hotel and I’m looking at Harley and all of a sudden he goes “Oomph.” I’m driving my car and I’m just like, “There’s no way. This is the hardest man in professional wrestling history. This man can hold his alcohol.”
He rolls the window down, turns, and in a noise I will never forget as long as I live, he says, “Pffffff” and spits a mouthful of vomit out the window. I’m driving, going at a good pace, and it immediately blows back all over Ace Steel. I look in the rear-view mirror and I’m just like, “Holy shit!” I look at Harley and he does it again. He just slowly turned to the window and he went, “Pffffff” like a balloon deflating. I started to pull over. He does it again, but this time, since I’m pulling over, he turns to me, swallows, and grabs my forearm and says, “Don’t pull over. You’ll alert the authorities. Pffffff.” This continues the entire way to his hotel room. We get to the hotel room, we get to the elevator, he turns to me — he’s covered in puke — and goes, “Well, my friend, I hope you have it in your heart to forgive me for throwing up in your car.” I said, “Nah, man, you’re Harley Race.” And then he proceeded to give me a big hug,
Together, not forever
The point of all that is to the name. I was just a punk rock kid from Chicago. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn’t supposed to fit in any locker room. I remember the first time I was in WWE and I didn’t fit in. The names on that roster who were regular, house-show loop guys — JBL, Batista. Shawn Michaels was still on the road. I knew because I had to tag with him and take all the bumps. That was my job and I did it legally. Ric Flair was still on the road. Triple H. The Undertaker. Edge. Jeff Hardy. Umaga. I’m forgetting people — that’s the shitty thing about being up here and not writing anything down. I got a job with WWE and it was because I wouldn’t be denied. When I got there I felt like I worked so hard that my heroes, the people I looked up to, became my peers and my rivals.
I’m driving my Monte Carlo, which is probably still stained with Harley’s puke, from Philadelphia. I wrestled an hour in the Philadelphia armory. Everything I own is in my car and I drive straight through to Chicago. I’m finishing up my dates with Ring of Honor and I’m 25, 26, I’m high on life. The sun is coming up, I’m driving on I-90 in Indiana and I see a sign that says “Welcome to Chicago” and my phone rings. It’s a 203 number so I know it’s somebody from WWE. I answer it and it’s Howard Finkel. He tells me that I’m booked for Monday Night Raw. Now, I wrestled Saturday night and it is like 9 in the morning. “What do I got to do?” He says, “We’re in Cleveland.” “Howard, I just drove all night. If you were to call me five hours ago, I would have been in Cleveland. I would have just pulled over.” He says, “Don’t worry about it. Fly in Monday morning.”
So I get home, I rest, Monday morning, my first day on the job, I show up at the rental car desk in Cleveland, Ohio, and there’s Mickie James [who was in the audience]. I went, “Mickie, what are you doing here?” And she said, “They’re calling me up and I heard it’s like me and you. Are we doing something?” I went, “I don’t know.” We rode together to the building and we got there and somebody came up to us and said, “You guys are on Sunday Night Heat.” Me and Mickie get told that we’re together. (Writer) Alex Greenfield, he couldn’t tell me shit. He’s like, you guys are together. “Great, are we brother and sister? Are we married? Are we together? Are we like Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers?” I was just spitballing. As we’re talking, Michael Hayes walks by and goes, CM Punk — I get it.” First day on the job and Mickie has been busting her ass in Ohio Valley Wrestling, and I looked at Mickie and went, “Oh man, the pressure’s on. I can’t fumble this fucking ball because it’s her career.”
Hunter comes up and looks at Mickie and goes, “You, I get.” He looks at me and he goes, “You … I … get.” He goes, “Together? I don’t fucking get it.” He walks away. So to set the table, debuting, Mickie’s debuting. I’m supposed to be a babyface. I had purple hair and we’re in Cleveland and they’re going to announce me from Chicago. I’ve got shitty tattoos and I’m with the hot girl with the big boobs and I remember pulling Mickie aside and going, “This isn’t going to work. They’re going to boo the shit out of me and you’re going to take the strafe from this one.” We came up with an elaborate entrance and I think we might have even kissed, and that was the kiss of death. The instant we kissed in front of Cleveland, they might have started throwing fucking garbage at us. I proceeded to have an OK match but it wasn’t up to snuff. I remember getting in the back and Arn (Anderson) and Hunter and Shawn were standing in the corner. It felt like high school because I know they were talking about me and I was like, “Oh, God, I guess I shit the bed.” I got sent to Ohio Valley Wrestling.
I figured six months tops. The best thing about being in OVW is I got to work with Danny Davis and it’s a recurring theme in my career. I don’t know why Danny liked me. All these old-school guys and all these tough guys, I don’t know why they put up with me. But they liked me. Paul Heyman would allow me to come to the Davis Arena on Tuesday night and help write the television show. My thing was, I’m never getting called up. That was my own chance. Back then, with all those names on the roster that I listed, it was just a shark tank. You weren’t going to get a shot and I figured that was my one shot.
But as long as I was going to be in that house, I was going to learn as much as I could from Danny Davis and Paul Heyman. Paul spent his time, he taught me how to write a television show, taught me how to time a television show. He taught me how to segment in and how to segment out of a commercial. Danny Davis and Paul let me sit in the control room with them and learn how to edit a television show. This is when I started drinking coffee and developed insomnia — that is not a joke. I figured I had six months. I was going to learn as much as I possibly could and when I was back on the indies, I was going to apply that.
Paul Heyman got me in and somehow got me on television as CM Punk. I figured I was going to be a farmer or an astronaut or something, but to me, that meant it’s not that Vince (McMahon) didn’t care. It’s just that he didn’t care enough about me or ECW that I was able to slip under the radar as CM Punk. I was CM Punk, 15 years old, wrestling in the backyard. I had no business being on WWE television wrestling with these giants and these legends as CM Punk. But I did.
And JBL [in audience]. They put the title on me, I won Money in the Bank (in 2011). I was in the right place at the right time. And this guy — let’s be honest, people tell horror stories about him. I had a match with Batista and you, and I’m a little guy taking bumps. I’m supposed to be the babyface and I’m supposed to be the champion but I’m getting the shit kicked out of me. It was the job and I remember laying there and they threw the title on me — this was the main event — and it wasn’t working. There are two household names, two superstars, and the new guy who probably didn’t deserve the gold at the time.
I was laying there thinking, “This sucks for me. I understand the position I’m in so back to the drawing board.” And you marched back to the ring unannounced [looks at JBL] and didn’t tell anybody you were doing this, didn’t tell me. You got in the ring, you picked me up and I was like, “Oh, he’s just going to clothesline me again.” You shot me into the ropes and you said, “Duck once, GTS” (Punk’s finisher). I was like, the first guy to do that for me. Thank you. Like Tracy Smothers and all these other people that I watched on television and wanted to emulate, somebody who I thought never in a million years would like me. For some reason, he did.
Ring of friendship
Somewhere along the way, I gained respect. I gained Taker’s respect. That is the point of all of this because none of this is about me. This is about the people who came before me. I miss a lot of them. I miss Eddie. I miss Chris Candido. I miss Tracy Smothers. I miss Harley Race. I miss Terry Funk. But it makes me appreciate the ones we still have and I can text every day. I can still text Jerry Brisco and I can still text Bret Hart. I can still see all of you and if wasn’t for all of you, and I mean everybody, because I’m appreciative of every promoter who’s ever paid me or not paid me, because it’s been a lesson. None of us are anything if it wasn’t for the fans. Now, we can all be egomaniacs and talk shit, but the fact is, if the seats are empty, there is no us.
Now I know throughout my career, I’ve probably rubbed some people the wrong way. Some people like me, some don’t. What I’ve always had was the backing of legends. [Looks at Teal Piper, Roddy Piper’s daughter.] Teal, your father, who is my hero. Roddy Piper is the reason I’m a wrestler today. I remember the last time I saw him and he told me he was proud of me. When people tell me they don’t like me or that the internet is mad at me, I just chuckle because Roddy Piper liked me. Dusty Rhodes liked me. I had the respect and the backing of Harley Race before I went to the WWE. That means more than all the money in the world because these legends put their stamp on me before anybody knew who I was. It gave me the confidence and it gave me the ability to succeed in a place where I didn’t think I’d ever fit in.
I’ve always struggled with a little bit of imposter syndrome; it’s a strange business. You’re just supposed to just talk shit. You’re supposed to tell everybody that you’re the best. Everybody compares numbers — I drew this number, I made this much money, I won this title, I did this, I did that. The point of the story that means the most to me now is sharing a locker room and having those kids come up to me — and I get emotional when they tell me — “I saw you sit cross-legged on a stage in Las Vegas and that brought me back to wrestling.” Or I see a kid come up to me and they show me a tattoo that says “Straight Edge,” and they say “I have never done drugs, smoked or drank because of you.” To me, just like the stamp of legends, that means so much to me. If there’s a reason I’m still doing this, it’s that. People come up and say, “You saved my life.” It sounds a little farfetched, but goddamnit, I understand and I take that responsibility to heart. That means a lot to me because I was touched through pro wrestling by legends like Roddy Piper and Terry Funk and Harley Race. To know that I inspired even one kid to do something positive or to get into this business, and to respect this business, that means the world to me.
Milk: It’s what’s good for you
One more Harley Race story [to loud cheers]. We’re on a show. It’s in Eldon (Missouri). We’re at Buzzer McGee’s, a bar that’s directly across from Harley Race’s school. Harley buys shots for everybody. We just got done working a show and we’re sitting there. The waitress comes by and she puts a shot in front of everybody and here’s me. She puts a shot in front of me and looks at me, and I go, “Huh.” She goes, “Harley Race bought those shots, honey. You’d better drink it.” I said, “I don’t drink.” She said, “Harley Race bought those shots, honey. You’d better drink it!” I looked at her and I said, “Uhh, uh,” and she said, “HARLEY RACE BOUGHT THOSE SHOTS, HONEY, YOU’D BETTER …” I thought she was going to beat me up. She got in my face and I was just, “I don’t drink. I don’t drink.”
So now, everyone is giving me shit. It’s eighth grade all over again. “Just drink it. It’s only one shot. Just drink it.” “I don’t drink.” I look over at Harley and Harley’s looking at me with his shot glass and I’m just like, “It’s been a good run. I’ll never work in the business again. I don’t drink.” Everyone did the shot and mine is still sitting there. Ace probably took a bullet for me and drank it and I was sitting there and I just felt weird. Let’s just make it weirder. I get up and go to the bartender and I go, “Do you guys have milk?” She’s like, “Hang on.” She opens the fridge and goes, “Who knew? We have milk.” I looked and I counted. “I need 17 shots of milk.” Now I am not a suicidal person but I was flirting with it right here.
Just like a little déjà vu, the same waitress in front of everybody, but this time, last is Harley. She plunks a shot of milk right in front of Harley Race. I’m sitting behind him and I’m looking at him and he does this [studies the shot]. “Is that milk?” I’m holding a shot glass and I went, “Yes, boss.” No one is touching their shot glass. Harley Race picks up his shot glass and he raises it to me, and everyone else follows suit. He downs the shot right away and slam it down in front of them. And he didn’t beat me up.
And I figured at that point, if Harley Race accepted the punk rock kid from Chicago who wore basketball shorts and Doc Martens, and had no business knowing or wrestling for Harley Race, that I was going to be OK. Everything else has been gravy since then. I have dreamed bigger and done things that the 15-year-old me never would have believed. I’ve failed huge, but I think I succeeded even bigger because I learned from all those failures and it has been my pleasure and my honor if I have made you happy in the wrestling ring, if I have made you mad in the wrestling ring — that’s even better. It’s been my pleasure. Thank you everybody.
TOP PHOTO: CM Punk at the Cauliflower Alley Club banquet on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Photo by Brad McFarlin